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Interview with Francesco Rosi: The Truce: The need to not forget
by Marco Spagnoli

Why did you decide to film Primo Levi's novel, The Truce ?
When The Truce was published in Italy in 1963, it made a great impression on the world of Italian cinema. I was among those who were deeply moved by the words of Primo Levi. Since that time I started thinking about making a movie.

What happened to stop your plans?
I won the Gold Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1963 for Le mani sulla citt&aaccute; -- The hands on the city. It was a very complicated year for me personally and (I knew) making a movie based on The Truce would not be easy. Years passed and I became absorbed with other projects. So I (temporarily) put aside this work.

When did you start thinking about it again?
In 1986, ten years ago, movies on the Shoah, like Schindler's List, were not around. I phoned Primo Levi in April of that year and asked him for film rights to his book. He told me that this project brought him a bit of light in a dark moment of his existence. I was filled with a sense of pride and responsibility. Levi's sister told me - later - that her brother was very happy to receive my call and to talk for half an hour about making the movie. The memory of Levi's voice has always been very important to me and I have carried it in my heart.
"The memory of Levi's voice has always been very important to me and I have carried it in my heart."

There have been so many written translations of his book, into so many different languages, and I always wanted to translate The Truce into the movie language. A week after we spoke, Primo Levi committed suicide and I had to stop every project because of the shock. I then made two movies, Cronaca di una morte annunciata and Dimenticare Palermo, but it was only when the Berlin Wall fell and war in the former Yugoslavia broke out, that I felt it absolutely necessary to release a movie on Primo Levi's message of peace and brotherhood - to support and to reaffirm his importance.

Why did you choose this story?
The Truce is the story of the return to life for a group of people who escaped the Nazi plan to destroy not only Jews, but all the people who were against them. Primo Levi's masterpiece, If This is a Man, was published two years after the war ended, in 1947. Sixteen years later Levi published The Truce, a book about coming back not only to his friends, his country and his family, but also to life. After the Lager, after the death, Levi felt the urge to relate in a novel the need to return to life. Philip Roth, the American writer, interviewed Levi in 1986 and after meeting with him, wrote-:

"What is surprising in The Truce is the fact that you (Primo Levi) lead the reader not to desperation, but to seemed extraordinarly interested on everything, ready to obtain from everything amusement and culture. I always wondered if you - in spite of starving, cold, fear and sorrow - ever lived better moments ?"
I think this clarifies why I chose to make a movie on Levi's book. I kept the connection between the atrocity and the hope, between the death and the return to life. I wanted to hold on to the words of Levi about the need not to forget.

How did you come to John Turturro for Primo Levi's role?
I saw Turturro in two movies at the Cannes film festival: Barton Fink and Jungle Fever. I was completely struck by the resemblance between Turturro and young Primo Levi's photos. I contacted him through Martin Scorsese and he was happy to accept the role.

What difficulties did you find while shooting?
There were many types: it was hard to recreate the atmosphere of a Lager where there were people from many countries, speaking different languages. Also, many times the temperature fell 20 and even 40 degrees below zero (celsius), compelling us to stay inside our hotel.

Why did you decide to shoot in Poland and the Ukraine?
Because those are the places described in the novel. And this is sad but true - I found something, in the scared eyes of the children and in the movements of the old people, that was written by Primo Levi in his book. There I found faces and expressions described by Levi which had stuck there for over fifty years.

"This was my challenge: to capture the great intuition of Primo Levi as a witness to the sorrow and the pain, but also to show the tragedy and the grotesque, so close to funny situations."

What did you want to say in this movie?
If we look behind us we can find inspiration to meditate on today's misdeeds. What really inspired me was the possibility of conveying on screen what Levi put so easily on the paper: the reconquest of life and the return of hope - and all this through the natural, small and happy every day occasions that reaffirm the superiority of life upon death. Watching The Truce you can't help thinking about Gerard Genette's words: 'A comedy is a tragedy seen from behind...'

I find this expression to be true, most of all when applied to a novel like The Truce. This was my challenge: to capture the great intuition of Primo Levi as a witness to the sorrow and the pain, but also to show the tragedy and the grotesque, so close to funny situations. Levi himself once said that he wrote this book to awaken the reader's emotions but also to entertain.

Which is the main difference between your movie and the book?
I directed The Truce thinking about two threads in the novel: awakening and amusement. I tried to recreate the spirit of The Truce, giving to the viewers the magic that only cinema can create by lights, sounds, motion pictures and words. Using this, I tried to narrate all the laughs, the tears and the feelings of the novel.

How does this story relate to your past movies?
The Truce is perfectly in tune with my other works. It deals with life, responsibility and civilization. I always made movies that depicted the reality in which I lived. I looked for universal subjects. I wanted my movies to get people to embrace a greater sense of responsibility for the present and the future. Looking all around Europe and all over the world: Bosnia, Afghanistan, Zaire and many other countries, you understand that Primo Levi's message is still alive and still important today.

What did you find so relevant in Primo Levi's books?
In his words I always found knowledge and emotions, but - most of all - the values we all need to go through this world which - day by day - becomes harder and harder. Primo Levi didn't hate his oppressors, but he wanted to remember their actions. Somewhere, someone has forgotten or never even heard of Levi's words. He always wished that no one should ever forget.